The Truman Show - Peter Weir - Jim Carrey - Truman Burbank - ending - stairway - stairs - staircase

The Truman Show
1998, directed by Peter Weir

The first crack in Truman Burbank’s TV fantasy world occurs on the reality show’s fifth-to-last day when a spotlight falls from the artificial sky onto the staged town of Seahaven, crashing in front of Truman’s home. The spotlight is labeled “Sirius” for the brightest star in the sky, and its fall conjures the once-popular metaphor “a star fallen from heaven” usually applied to a glamorous woman.

The character names are also star metaphors, mostly from classic Hollywood: Lauren Garland (Lauren Bacall and Judy Garland), Marlon (Brando), Meryl (Streep), Vivian (Leigh), Spencer (Tracy), Kirk (Douglas), Lawrence (Olivier), and Angela (Lansbury). The streets too are named for famous movie figures: Lancaster Square, Barrymore Road, and DeMille Street.

Truman Burbank’s surname is a Hollywood reference too, not to a movie star but to the Los Angeles suburb behind the iconic Hollywood sign. Burbank, home to the Warner Brothers and Disney studios, is nicknamed the “Media Capital of the World”. The Truman Show’s domed soundstage sits over Burbank, foregrounded by the Hollywood sign. We are told that Truman is the first person legally adopted by a corporation, but his first name diverges from his corporate family heritage: Truman is a “true man”, the only genuine person among characters who are merely acting.

The Truman Show - Peter Weir - Jim Carrey - Truman Burbank

The numerous Hollywood allusions point squarely at concerns about modern media, but the remaining names point elsewhere, in a quasi-religious direction. Seahaven sounds like “see heaven” as if it’s meant to look like paradise. Its creator Christof declares that “Seahaven is the way the world should be”, an improvement on divine creation. Truman’s mother is Angela; the dog Pluto may refer to either the Disney cartoon (a Hollywood figure) or the Roman god of the underworld; and the sailboat Truman escapes on is the Santa Maria.

The biggest religious allusion is Christof himself, whose name includes “Christ” and who acts with divine self-importance. He watches Truman from the sky and manipulates events below with apparent omnipotence. He casts lightning bolts in anger, controls the weather and the sun, and blesses marriages. Marlon credits the sunset to the artistry of the “big guy”, meaning Christof. When Christof finally speaks to Truman, his voice booms through the clouds, framed by a burst of sunbeams, and the way he pauses while saying, “I am the creator… of a television show” exposes his god-like pretension.

The Truman Show - Peter Weir - Christof - Ed Harris - control room - sky

Some details thus point to a critique of Hollywood and others to a religious allegory, but these are not competing interpretations. Both resolve into a single argument in the climax, which pits Truman’s point of view against Christof’s. Christof justifies his control of Truman’s life on utilitarian grounds, arguing that he’s given Truman a “normal life” protected from harm inside his giant shell and meeting all his needs. The show’s cast and crew tacitly endorse Christof’s stance through their cooperation, although Truman finds a rather inarticulate ally in Sylvia (Lauren Garland’s real name), and he wins the support of the show’s fans. The movie itself, in its emotional arc and its resolution, also comes down on Truman’s side (although it surely overplays its hand when Christof tries to kill Truman in the storm – the murder attempt isn’t sufficiently motivated, and it only exaggerates what we already know of Christof’s hunger for power).

In contrast to Christof’s utilitarian view, Truman espouses a Kantian ethic in which a calculus of benefits is not a sufficient guide for action. The movie argues that it is wrong for humans to play God. Whether a God exists or not, people act irresponsibly when they assume godlike powers over others.

But this ethical argument does not take place in a vacuum. By alluding so consistently and so directly to Hollywood, the movie asks whether Hollywood itself plays God in our lives; whether we haven’t all in some way been legally adopted by a corporate world responsible only to its shareholders; whether Hollywood doesn’t somehow cast all of us as Trumans, creating a bubble around us for our supposed benefit – but more accurately for its own benefit – and doing what it can to prevent us from leaving.

Although much of The Truman Show is implausible – a vast dome as high as a skyscraper over prime urban real estate, with the technology to simulate nature inside – nevertheless many of its premises are disturbingly close to the world we live in.

The Truman Show - Peter Weir - Hollywood sign - Burbank

For starters, the movie takes a jab at product placement in movies and television. What makes product placement so insidious is that it prostitutes entertainment, turning it into a medium of advertising while masquerading as something else. In the cinema it cheats viewers, furtively sidetracking their attention from the feature they’ve already paid to watch. At least on television such advertising can be considered the price of admission. The Truman Show treats it humorously, showing how inept and insincere it inevitably looks when Meryl advertises Mococoa or Elk Rotors.

More pointed is the film’s critique of Hollywood’s cynical exploitation of its public’s hopes and dreams. This is a fairly common criticism; Hollywood has long been called a “dream factory”, a paradoxical phrase that captures the conflict between the sanctity and the commodification of people’s innermost wishes. One of the dark sides of movies and modern media is that they lead people astray for their own benefit, promoting fantasies like glamor and heroism that were not widespread before movies existed. Christof sells his viewers the fantasy of stardom, of being the center of attention. Everyone watching Truman on TV is constantly reminded that the cameras are always on him, that everyone in his world exists solely for his sake. The movie exposes the disappointing reality of the fantasy’s fulfilment, as Truman gets no particular thrill from all the attention.

The Truman Show is even more damning toward entertainment’s fetishization of the “real”. The television show starring Truman Burbank is a so-called “reality show”, a format that became popular in the 1990s. The film begins with statements from Christof and the performers who play Meryl and Marlon, each extolling the show’s reality as a virtue. Christof says the public is tired of fake effects and fake emotions, that his show may not be Shakespeare but it’s “genuine”. Meryl chimes in, saying it’s more of a lifestyle than a TV show. The film ultimately shows how misplaced and misleading this kind of self-congratulation is.

The Truman Show - Peter Weir - Seahaven

The problem when a movie or television claims to present something “real” is that it usually fails to acknowledge the filters through which it views reality. It’s impossible for a moving picture to present reality directly; there is always a particular point of view through which the purportedly real is perceived and presented. Documentaries also face this problem whenever they pretend to show an unfiltered picture of the real world.

The movie argues that the entertainment industry, like Christof, plays God both when it capitalizes on people’s dreams and when it purports to show absolute reality. Truman resists on both fronts; his own dreams don’t match what he is told he should want, and he gradually comes to doubt the reality of his surroundings. But Christof plays God in a third way by denying Truman his freedom to explore outside his enclosure. The insinuation is that media plays a similar trick on its consumers, purveying the notion that its content is the only “normal” entertainment (Christof also uses the word “normal”), that anything outside its artificial sphere is deviant. Hollywood’s cultural monopoly has a similar effect, and escaping from this mandated normality is tantamount to Truman stepping into freedom through a door in the sky.

Not all entertainment media participates equally in these acts of cultural tyranny. Hollywood has a long and noble tradition of self-criticism, like The Wizard of Oz implicitly likening the “dream factory” to the fantasy land Dorothy flies to “over the rainbow” on a tornado. In The Truman Show the sky is again the zone of transition between fantasy and reality. It seems to invert Dorothy’s lesson that “there’s no place like home” – after all it celebrates Truman’s wish to explore beyond his home. But in fact his escape is more like Dorothy’s return to Kansas, because he crosses from the deceptive ideal of Seahaven into reality. In both movies dogs are a tangible link to reality – Toto accompanies Dorothy from Kansas to Oz, and the first sign of the real world in Truman’s life is Sirius, the Dog Star.

CONNECTIONS:

The Wizard of Oz – Hollywood criticizing itself; dogs as link between fantasy and reality; inversion of “no place like home”; sky (rainbow, tornado, inner dome) as barrier or transition between worlds; disappointing reality of a fantasy’s actualization

Rear Window – Disappointing reality of a fantasy’s actualization

Night Train – Fetishization of the “real”

Pierrot le fou – Characters talking like a TV commercial; breaking fourth wall

Persona – Breaking the fourth wall; hand reaching out to touch a face on a large screen

Mulholland Drive – Hollywood sign as a metonymy for modern media